Friday, May 25, 2018

The Foundation of Morality

You can't feel others feelings and sensations; if you did "they" would be "you"! Instead the third
 person account of humanity only yields: a) behavioral patterns at the macroscopic level and b) 
complex dynamic molecular network at the microscopic level. 

I recently had a discussion with a Facebook friend (Chris Erskin - he's happy having his name published here) about the basis of morality. Although Chris is not an atheist (He is in fact a Christian) he is troubled by the question of what atheists base their morality on. Like myself he can't quite write-off atheism as a world view which necessarily leads to an amoral stance and he believes they do have grounds, even apparently without God, to behave morally. But if so, from whence does this morality come?  The following was Chris' opening gambit:

I am struggling to wrap my head around the atheist perspective of good and evil. If it is purely natural, as in a genetically evolved reflex or emotional response then how can it be said to exist at all? If it does exist then does it matter, if something that is said to matter is something that is of consequence. Nothing mankind does is of consequence as it it will all be forgotten and eventually destroyed. The only way I can see that it matters is if an atheist thought that we had transcended our nature somehow to achieve morality and that a good action remains a good action despite it being brief. That is hard for me to understand so any help?

True, atheism does have an abstract philosophical problem over the nature of morality; why should atheist behavior be constrained by anything other than a mere survival "ethic"But in spite of atheism's philosophical difficulties here, atheists themselves, on a practical level, can display exemplary morals by human standards. After all: 

13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:13-16)

But can we say more about conscience and those inner secret thoughts which give atheist and theist alike their hidden inner universal moral compass?  I believe we can.

Below I reproduce the discussion I had on the question with Chris E. But my own answers to this question depend on what I consider to be axiomatic; namely, that human beings have a private first person conscious perspective; without this axiomatic foundation the universal basis for morality disperses like an early morning mist; even for Christians. Having said that, however, I can't answer for those atheists* who attempt to deny the existence of consciousness and regard it as illusory. In fact Barry Arrington, supremo of the de facto Intelligent Design site Uncommon Descent, criticises atheist Sam Harris who, according to Arrington, claims consciousness is an illusion  Below I quote from Arrington's article (With my emphases):

Long time readers know we have occasionally indulged in Sam Harris fricass√©e in these pages.  See here, here and here for examples.  Harris is one of the leading proponents of the “consciousness is an illusion” school, which means he denies the Primordial Datum – the one thing that everyone (including Sam Harris) knows for a certain fact to be true — that they are aware of their own existence.  [See here for more on Harris' views on consciousness]

I agree with Arrington's objection. As Arrington says Harris will, in fact, know the Primordial Datum to be a self-evident reality; but of course, that doesn't necessarily stop him outwardly denying it as a reality. My own view is that even if we should have in our possession a complete neuro-molecular account of human brain functioning (an idea I'm actually in great sympathy with - I'm not a fan of ghost-in-the-machine dualism) it would still not do away with the first person conscious perspective - in fact it requires it. (See here for more on this subject. See also my footnote below on John Searle*). 

However, I depart from Arrington in his next comments:

That said, we will be the first to admit there is an integrity – of a sort – to Harris’ silliness.  He understands that his materialism precludes, in principle, the existence of immaterial consciousness, and so he denies consciousness exists.  Yes, I know, it is gobsmackingly stupid.  But at least it is an honest sort of stupidity.

Where I disagree with Arrington here is his implicit dualist ID mindset which envisages there to be a sharp dichotomy between the "immaterial" and the "material". It is this dichotomy which leads to de facto ID's self-inflicted philosophical fault line between intelligence and so-called "natural forces". In my view one can not separate cognitive self-awareness from the so-called "material" (Once again see here for more on this subject). I've taken de facto ID to task over this false dichotomy many times before on this blog so I will say no more at this juncture. That Arrington somehow perceives an honest logic in Harris' position is a sign that they share a Western dualist category system which sets "the supernatural" against "natural forces". 

Nevertheless, I agree with Arrington that Harris' position, if in fact he holds it, is gobsmackingly stupid; it is the self-beguiling of someone who is unwilling to accept something he knows not only to be true and but which also underwrites truth. For as Arrington suggests, Harris will in his heart of hearts be aware of the Primordial Datum; it is the starting point on which objectivity is rooted in as much as all observation of the objective must evidence itself via our first person experiences. Likewise, as I propose below,  it is also the corner stone of morality and one's secret moral compass within.  

Whatever an atheist like Harris may say in public, his morality, such as it is, only makes coherent sense if he believes the reality of other human beings to not merely reside in a facade of elaborate behavioral patterns registering in Harris' solipsistic interface of personal experience, but are also centers of conscious sensations of joy, pleasures and pains like himself. The occasional denial of the first person perspective may actually have its roots in anti-theism: For to admit that human beings have a first person perspective which necessarily doesn't and cannot figure in a third person account of human beings is uncomfortably close to theism's positing of a cosmically embracing divine first person perspective.

The contents below appeared on Facebook.


Hello Chris;

A rather long post I’m afraid. The contents here were destined for my blog, but I’ll lumber you with them as well. Below I take quotes from your post and interleave my own comments. 

The secret of morality (in my view) is that we see other human beings as having a first person perspective like our selves - that is, as entities with a consciousness of pains and joys etc. If we are well tuned into this empathetic extrapolation the feelings of others become our feelings to a greater or lesser extent. This is probably the basis of the Golden Rule (See James 3:9 and Romans 13:8-10) and also atheist morality. However, we have a big issue here. The third person (scientific) perspective only ever yields human beings as patterns of behavior and/or dynamic configurations of particles. Accordingly,  some people  (notably some atheists) have proposed that that sense of conscious feeling which is the basis of morality (that is, the first person perspective) is entirely illusory! It may be that these atheists feel uneasy about something which as far as science's third person language is concerned remains (by definition) unobservable and may look like the thin end of the theistic wedge. It is when one attempts to reduce the first person perspective to just a third person perspective that the meaning of morality becomes a problem. The two perspectives of the first and third persons must run in parallel for a meaningful morality to emerge. One needn't be a theist for this to happen. Take for example the atheist philosopher John Searle who acknowledges the first person point of view as an irreducible feature of our universe.**

QUOTE: I am starting to see I have stumbled on an area of philosophy that hasn't changed much in the last few hundred years with a consistent clash between free will and determinism. I think you are right to put the moral decisions of right and wrong within the gaps of the two greater theories but it also fairly unsatisfying! If free will is an illusion through biological evolution then so is the decision making process of moral law. The problem is then justifying through evolution alone the huge amount of resource of calories and blood that goes into making us under an unnecessary illusion of free will. UNQUOTE:

MY COMMENT: I have always had a major problem identifying a coherent meaning of the “Free will vs determinism” dichotomy. I’m neither denying nor affirming either side of this dichotomy – I’m just saying that neither are intelligible as concepts. For every finite pattern you observe there is at least one mathematical function of greater or lesser computational complexity which can be used to generate that pattern. Therefore because this kind of mathematical "determinism" is an almost trivial mathematical theorem it raises the question of just how useful “determinism” and its negation “free will” are as concepts. Patterns are just patterns with varying levels of mathematical tractability. Ergo, in my view, “determinism” and “free will” are both of illusory significance. If I may put it stronger; they are both bogus categories. Forget them.

QUOTE: The other end of the spectrum is the theist [does he mean atheist? Ed] that denies the physical attributes of consciousness who is also wrong. I see why you agree with Leighton in his middle ground. Yes biological evolution produces real free will (probably) and with free will comes an external understanding of empathy which can be used to want to buffer others experience of pain, as an example, as you would yourself. UNQUOTE

MY COMMENT: Well OK, let’s accept for the sake of argument that (constrained) evolution has generated entities called humans, entities which have the first person perspective of conscious cognition. Given the latter humans therefore have the potential to engage in a kind of empathetic projection which means they are able to identify one another also as centres of conscious cognition. This realisation, however, has amazing implications: It means that so-called “matter”, if assembled into the right configurations, results in the first person perspective of conscious cognition. This is an astounding property of matter for it suggests that the potential for conscious cognition and personality is an inherent and implicit property of matter.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I think you are agreeing with me that the innate ability of human beings to project empathetically, thus enabling them to identify other humans as centres of conscious cognition, is an important precursor of morality. But if consciousness is an implicit property of matter (that is, matter in the right configurations) it follows that our taboo against obnoxious behaviour isn’t just a kind socially constructed rule that arbitrarily defines the category of “obnoxiousness”: This follows because the taboo actually has its origins in the fundamental character of matter and its implicit potential for giving rise to a social network of self-conscious beings who in turn have the potential to infer something about what one another are feeling. If the first person perspective and its potential for empathetic projection has its origins in particulate configurations of matter it follows that the fundamentals of morality also have their basis in our physical regime and not merely in social construction. This understanding should be no problem for a Christian because for the Christian the physical regime is God created and therefore it is no surprise that it has what in Western dualistic language would likely classify as something tantamount to a “supernatural” attribute; that is, the potential to generate the first person perspective of conscious cognition. No wonder some atheists find consciousness hard to stomach. 

QUOTE: I still think this middle ground lacks the explanation of moral law unless it can be reasoned as a sort of mutually developed group approval. Even in this case I would argue it is just the methodology behind an evolved mechanism and therefore holds little value as the thing by which we feel we understand values such as justice. The wrongdoer would just be someone who failed to have the genetic or social make up in which to maintain correctly the normal values that we assume within the culture. The truth that this isn’t the case is acted out constantly in people’s furious anger against those who they know to have done wrong. UNQUOTE

MY COMMENT: Although I think it’s true that morality does become socially embroidered with a lot of arbitrary rule driven complexity obeyed by way of rote rather like a computer following its program (especially in religion), I’m proposing that the underlying kernel of morality is based on the fact that matter has the potential to generate self-conscious cognating identities and with it the potential for empathetic projections to be made between those self-conscious identities. Thus it follows that what underwrites fundamental morality is not arbitrary social convention, but surprisingly, the fundamental physical regime itself which, of course, for the Christian is created, sustained and managed by God himself.

Human anger results when they believe that another centre of conscious cognition, of which it is assumed has the capability to make the right empathetic projection, nevertheless insists on engaging in offensive behavior which is careless of the feelings of others. In this sense the meaning of "sin", the word which appropriately has  the "i" in the middle, is clear, but there is an epistemic problem in identifying whether "sin" exists in particular cases. The epistemic problem is that a person’s offensive behaviour may have mitigating unseen circumstances like, for example, an autistic problem with identifying people’s feelings etc. But if one’s genetic makeup has given one the ability to make a correct empathetic projection and yet one still engages in offensive behaviour then sin is sin, even if it takes an omniscient divine perspective to identify its presence with certainty. It is an irony that what you identify as “genetic determinism” is the very thing which bestows the responsibilities of morality upon us: For surely it is the right genetic make-up which is required to generate the brain capable of giving us insight into the feelings of other minds and therefore the choice on how to respond to those inferred feelings. (Psychopaths may be deficient of the ability to empathetically project)

QUOTE: The response you would expect if it was merely a deviation from the expected behaviour would be more like - "Apologies we the majority have decided that your physical individual interpretation of morality does not fit in well with our society at this time. Despite the fact that it seems unreasonable to lock you up we have decided to take this course of action. We hold no hard feelings or ill will towards you as we understand you are only working with the confines of your genetics, your experiences and your ability to empathize" UNQUOTE

MY COMMENT: Yes and no. “No” because we’re not talking arbitrary social fiat here. For reasons I’ve already given fundamental morality has its basis in the fundamental character of matter and its God given potentiality to generate conscious personalities and by implication the potential for empathetic projection. And “Yes” because judging whether or not an individual has willfully neglected his/her capability for empathetic projection is, as I have already said, epistemically precarious. Hence human social justice, in my view, should err on the side of serving the role of pragmatic deterrence and restorative justice, rather than judging sin – the latter is God’s role not ours.

QUOTE: Instead now more than ever the response is fury and disgust at those that dare disagree with your world view. In this way I think they prove the belief in a right to hold others to a far higher account then merely the biological. UNQUOTE:

MY COMMENT: Ironically (in my view) it is the "mere" biological which gives us morality! That “higher account”, as you call it, is, I propose, found in the very low level details of created matter itself; to be precise (I suspect) the details of quantum biology. If true, what an irony!

 QUOTE: Leighton’s point that it isn't evidence of a higher being is probably true. Despite using Jesus summary of the entire Bible as evidence that we no longer need a higher beings morality. It does show that the idea of moral law itself could be part of the illusory sense developed. My point about the overzealous commitment of those willing to condemn others also works as well to prove that the higher moral law is an abstraction that solidifies conviction and doesn't necessarily make it more true. UNQUOTE

MY COMMENT: Evidence is always an interpretation; in the light of this understanding of what constitutes so-called “evidence”, it is awfully easy to interpret the fact that conscious cognition, personality and therefore morality are implicit in our physical regime as “evidence” of theism. After all, it suggests that conscious personality is a fundamental potential of the cosmos. It’s then a very short intellectual journey into the world of the anthropic principle and the question of theism! This may be why some, repeat some, atheists prefer to declare the first person perspective as an illusion in order to cut this dangerous line of thinking in the bud.


Let me finish by noting again the irony that the so-called  “higher law” of morality is in fact written into the very low level fabric of matter! Western philosophy is held back by a gnostic “spirit vs. matter” dualism which sees them as two very different categories. In Western thinking either one of these categories tends to be dominated by the other, perhaps leading one or the other being declared as unreal or unworthy: That is, atheists tend to declare the spiritual to be unreal and Christian Gnostics declare the material to be profane. This dualistic philosophy also holds back our church life with its modern stress on a quasi-gnostic rendition of Christian experience. This alienates many Christians whose faith isn’t just based on “wow!” experiences. To be frank I've never really developed any synergy or rapport with Western Christianity myself, so I know the feeling.

Christian scientist Denis Alexander is worth reading on this subject. Like myself he is not in favour of dualism. See:


* Atheist Daniel Dennett has also been accused of denying the existence of consciousness.  Philosopher John Searle says of Dennett's view:

To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He continues to use the word, but he means something different by it. For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings, because we are all just complex zombies. ...I regard his view as self-refuting because it denies the existence of the data which a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain...Here is the paradox of this exchange: I am a conscious reviewer consciously answering the objections of an author who gives every indication of being consciously and puzzlingly angry. I do this for a readership that I assume is conscious. How then can I take seriously his claim that consciousness does not really exist?

** John Searle has been accused of sexual harassment. An accusation has surfaced that "Searle has had sexual relationships with his students and others in the past in exchange for academic, monetary or other benefits". It seems that when a pattern of such accusations emerge about influential males in high places we can safely conclude that there is no smoke without fire. It is ironic that in identifying the necessary precursor of morality (i.e. conscious cognition) Searle should show such a flagrant disregard for the feelings of those he has offended against.  Because philosophy tends to follow the vagaries of fashion, it is quite likely that Searle's behaviour has damaged his philosophy. More's the pity. 

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